AKDN Civil Society Director Talks with AKF USA

Nick McKinlay, Director of Civil Society for the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), recently visited Washington, DC to talk about the importance of and next steps for civil society throughout all of AKDN's work in development.

Read the interview with Nick McKinlay by AKF USA below:
Can you explain what civil society is and how village organizations contribute?
McKinlay: We’re talking about civil society as being private energies for public purposes. In the simplest terms, basically where people come together to do something that benefits society as a whole and, in a sense, doing something for others or for their community.
For AKDN and the communities where we work, Village Organizations are very important because they become the vehicles for change in terms of people’s economic and social opportunities. For example, in many of our rural support programs Village Organizations act as a venue where all of the villages come together and start to make joint decisions about how they can achieve more by working together.
So it becomes a good vehicle for managing and making plans around what’s important for the community. Increasingly, we’ve seen these Village Organizations become in a sense federated where you may have a whole range of Village Organizations coming together to create another body that represents a much wider area. These bodies are also now able to interface with local government and are really creating a voice of participation for people to actually, beyond a democratic election, participate in decision making about what happens for them in their society. This is what we call participatory governance.
How do Village Organizations play a role in improving individual households?
McKinlay: I think in many of the rural locations that we work, Village Organizations have allowed people to come together and collectively say, “Look, if we work together and think together and pool our resources together, then everybody benefits.”
It’s also important to understand that everything isn’t equal. In any location, some people have more than others, some people may be disadvantaged. There may be widows living in the village, there may be elderly people that perhaps don’t have the same assets or opportunities. So I think having a group that’s more structured like a Village organization also allows people to look at equity and see how maybe you can take care of people who are more vulnerable.
What is the benefit of strengthening civil society organizations in post-conflict countries?
McKinlay: One of the things we're looking at in Afghanistan is how to provide knowledge and skills to build the capacity of civil society organizations to make a bigger contribution to society.
We have plans to develop institutions that would provide certified training and capacity building to civil society organizations across the country. The idea is that certification would be recognized by international agencies and not only be a capacity building approach but also, over time, increase the number of high quality civil society associations that would gain credibility in receiving funding and donations.
It's very important to build civil society in a country like Afghanistan so that it can help propel the country forward.
Civil society is integral to the AKDN's approach. How does it overlap with other sectors where the AKDN works?
McKinlay: I think health's a good example. The AKDN’s health programs involve communities and community organizations where people elect or select representatives and have a voice in how health services are managed. I think that ownership, involvement and participation are all important parts of a civil society approach. You see this approach across almost all of the activities of the AKDN.
In Pakistan, AKF USA supports the Chitral Child Survivors Program, which engages civil society to measure improvements in health outcomes. I think that there are lots of statistics and measurements that show a positive impact. If you involve people in these activities, you have much more of a chance of including everybody and making sure that there is some equity in terms of how resources are used. Also, there's some ownership.
Another important part of what we do is to look at sustainability. If there's external funding that comes into an area through a program which is time bound, can the program continue to completion? There’s a better chance of those activities continuing if community people are involved and own the process from the beginning. These are things that they want and need.
How do you view the connection between civil society and community philanthropy?
McKinlay: The connection between community philanthropy and civil society is important because if external assistance is provided for only a certain amount of time and then stopped, how do you continue what you started? What's important about community philanthropy is the need to build up local assets, which may be physical assets, or may be issues related to skills and knowledge.
It is also important to build local governance and accountability systems so trust and transparency are there from the beginning. And I think these things are really important because you need to make sure that there is a sustainable plan in place about how you as a community, organization and even village are going to continue to ensure your own development when outside funding dries up. 


On a projects such a village water supply as an example which needs personnel to operate and to do maintenance/repairs and look after spare part storage facility , they should be paid some kind of monthly stipend on a rotation basis so that there is a pool of people who can do the the job as the need arise. This would ensure sustainabilty of the the physical asset..

In some cases, a village fund is created from user fees and this can be used towards small stipends if the community agrees with the idea

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